By Margaret Scarborough
The BBC series The Life of Muhammad does precisely what a documentary should: inform, educate, and stimulate. Divided into three one-hour segments, the series chronologically tracks the life of the Muslim Prophet Muhammad. For the general audience, often wary of dry historical documentaries, the presentation is casual and familiar. And perhaps most importantly when presenting a polemical topic (polemical in the sense that nearly everything pertaining to religion is polemical these days) here there is true scholarship paired with a profound sincerity.
The narrator of the triptych is Rageh Omaar, a Somali born British journalist. He is pleasant, sweet-faced, almost affable, and as a presenter- modest. He does not jar the viewer or come across as overly authoritarian. Rather, these films create the environment of a collective journey towards understanding in which the narrator also participates. As a Muslim, Omaar can offer the viewer his own personal desire for knowledge and discovery. The questions are many: Who is Muhammad? And why is an understanding of his life and times important to Muslims and non- Muslims alike? Why is his story fundamental to an appreciation and awareness of Islam; how is this history relevant to a troubled present- day world?
The series’ strength is to be found in its balancing of fact and vision, of countering the past with the present, its mixture of modern day scholarship with particulars taken from tradition. Scholars and non- scholars from all faiths and backgrounds are offered a say. There is an impressive line-up of academics in the fields of religious and Islamic studies. And so the “journey” takes the viewer not only to the Arab peninsula but to universities such as Cambridge and Oxford with the implication that the scope of the topic is not limited by geography or time. Important contributors to the study of the life of Muhammad such as Tariq Ramadan and Karen Armstrong speak passionately. At the root of it all, although the ostensible focus is Muhammad, the Prophet himself, there is an attempt to shed light on the moderate nature of Islam. There is an attempt, rightly, to eschew and challenge the dangerous and prevalent stereotypes plaguing the religion. The Muslim is not necessarily an Arab, nor is he or she an angry extremist, nor is a Muslim the bearded sheikh with four wives, or the wife covered and veiled, mute. A Muslim is a believer and may be a white Briton or indeed, anyone. A believer is one who follows the tenants of Islam, as first laid down by the revelations of the Prophet.
Throughout the thread of the narrative the author succeeds in incorporating several searing debates pertaining to contemporary Islam and the West. The veil, Muslim-Jewish relations and the many interpretations of jihad are all treated with acumen and brevity. The discourse does not delve deep, but is no less apt for that.
Visually, the cinematography does not overwhelm. The film allows the scenes to present themselves. Together, the images offer a brilliant glimpse into the sacred sites of Islam. Images of Mecca and the Hajj, Medina sprawling among the rocky hillsides, Damascus bustling and grey- beautiful and then worshippers, calligraphy and ancient manuscripts: a delectable montage. For the viewer unaccustomed to such images, the series is valuable for this footage alone, capturing as it does the richness which belongs to the traditional Islamic world as well as a concrete vision of its humanity.
Weaknesses must be noted. The series is produced by a Muslim company, Crescent Films, and therefore the content could never be purely objective. The intentions of the producers, albeit praiseworthy and conducive towards tolerance, colour the films with a hint of something slightly doctrinal. At times Rageh Omaar, in spite of his best efforts (and perhaps because of flaws in the script), is half- hearted in his enthusiasm and unconvincing in his repetitiveness. Hyperbole is in abundance: many episodes in the life of the Prophet are lumped into the “extremely important” or “crucial moments” category so that the presenter must shake his hands vigorously and inflect his voice with greater meaning. The music, similarly, is often triumphant and grandiose, imbuing the documentary with a flat epic quality which attempts to mirror the greatness of the story which is related.
All told, the series is valuable, concise, and timely. The journey emphasizes a brief moment in history which is the life of one man and the implications of that life. Civilizations would flourish, cultures spread, and conflicts result. It is a message not to be ignored. The mysteries of a great faith are made, if not clear, a little more comprehensible to the outsider.
Margaret Scarborough is a student of European and Middle Eastern Languages (Arabic and Italian) at Somerville College, Oxford.
Photo credits: BBC/Crescent Films
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